Christmas will be different this year. Families won’t be able to gather in the way they are used to. Christmas Eve worship, even if it’s in person, will feel different (or should) with masks and physical distancing and carols, if sung at all, done in a muted whisper. The number of individuals and families struggling with COVID and mourning the loss of family members continues to climb. The long-expected vaccine, while gratefully available to some, won’t make it to all of us for months to come. There is grief in all that and it is important that name it. Yes, Christmas will be different this year.
But, what do we do with that?
I remember the year my father died. It was the Sunday before Christmas, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and I was just getting ready to head for the church when my mother called. My dad had a sudden, massive heart attack. He didn’t make it.
For a variety of reasons, his funeral wound up being on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. It was a beautiful service. The pastor preached a powerful sermon full of the grace and promise of Christ. Some women of the church even took time out from their personal Christmas preparations to serve us a lovely dinner.
After the dinner, the whole family decided to go to the first Christmas Eve candlelight service. Up to that point, the whole experience seemed surreal to me. That was, until we heard again the words of the Christmas angel, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) Until we lit the candles in the darkness and sang Silent Night. After all we had been through, that felt real to me. Absolutely, positively, concretely, real. And it made all the difference. It didn’t take away the sense of loss, or the grief, or the intense emotions of my father’s death. But it did make all the difference.
This year, as I think about how different our Christmas celebrations will be, I draw a lot of strength and comfort from the nostalgic memory of that Christmas Eve over twenty years ago. I can’t recreate it. We won’t even be in worship this year! I certainly wouldn’t want to relive it. But it is the reality I experienced in the midst of my grief and sorrow that I can, once again, tap into. The reality that permeated the pastor’s grace filled message, the women’s compassion and care in serving us, and the hope of the light shining in the darkness of that silent night.
For many of us, Christmas will be different this year. No doubt about it. But then again, it will be exactly the same. In spite of our altered celebrations, we can still rejoice in the birth of the One who turns the tears of our grief into songs of joy. We can still take comfort in the One who chose to take on our frail, mortal, COVID-vulnerable flesh and die so that we might have life and have it abundantly. We can still find hope in the One who shines the light of abundant life through the shadowy shroud of death that surrounds us all. And for you, and for me, and for the whole world that still makes all the difference.
Bishop Mike Girlinghouse, Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, ELCA
Third Sunday of Advent, 2020